The X-Files. Medium.The Ghost Whisperer. We’re awash with pop culture’s
obsession with the afterlife and the good and nasty spirits lying therein. But guess what? Thanks to the teachings of the Catholic Church, we have the Communion of Saints.
And the best part? We’re part of it. When you think about it, it blows the mind.
By Robert Hiini
With top rating shows such as Medium, The Ghost Whisperer and Supernatural or locally produced reality show The One: The search for Australia’s most gifted psychic, pop culture is awash with the occult and fascination with the afterlife.
It is perhaps a little strange then that there is so little public discussion of a core Catholic belief: that our departed brothers and sisters in Christ – members of the Communion of Saints – are all around us.
On TV, it goes like this. A spirit, trapped between this world and the next appears to a seer, a person gifted with the ability to see and communicate with the dead.
The spirit, who looks like you or me, is aided by the seer and unshackled from whatever it is that keeps them from walking “into the light”. Although the stuff of primetime escapist fantasy, the alternate reality these programs portray is a poor substitute for a reality the Church has recognised since the very beginning – that there are people who have run the race and are barracking for us with God.
This is our ‘home crowd’, the Communion of Saints – the spiritual bond that holds together we the faithful on earth, those who are undergoing purification in purgatory and those of us who are already in heaven.
We are made members of the family by our baptism through which we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1-4) and “fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8: 17).
This union is so intimate that, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all (while) every sin harms this communion.” (CCC 954).
According to US theologian and apologist Eric Stoutz, there are four key truths that lead us to believe in this reality:
– All Christians are members of Christ’s body and one another (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27).
– Jesus has only one body (Eph. 4:4; Col. 3:15).
– Death cannot separate Christians from Christ or from one another (Rom. 8:35-39; cf. Lk. 20:37-38).
– Christians are bound in mutual love (Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 12:10).
Not only does this communion include ourselves – saints in progress – but it also includes those who have been formally recognised by the Church as well as those whose saintly lives will remain unknown to the wider world.
The lives of we saints – dead and undead – are shared in our receipt and participation in common spiritual goods given to the Church by Christ. These spiritual goods are:
– Communion in the faith: The faith that the apostles and disciples of Jesus have passed on to us through the Holy Spirit,
– Communion of the sacraments: Grace is poured out upon us in the sacraments and we are united especially in our common baptism and coming together as the Body of Christ in the Eucharist,
– Communion of charisms: We are all given special graces to build up the Church,
– Communion of goods: All goods we are given are to be considered common and are to be used for the benefit of all, particular those in most need,
– Communion in love: “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself (CCC 953).” Every good or evil we do impacts upon all of the body’s members (adapted from CCC 949-953).
These are our ‘family heirlooms’ and ‘shared activities’ which make up the life of our communion and bind us to those Christians in heaven and those yet to come.
We are able to seek the prayers or intercessions of the saints because, as mentioned earlier, the faithful are not separated from each other by death.
In other words, praying to the saints is different from asking other people to pray for you, because the saints in heaven have already ‘got there’.
As Vatican II’s 1964 Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), put it: “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness… through Him, with Him and in Him, they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men”.
The saints then do not represent an alternative path to God the Father, but instead unite their prayers with Christ. The practice of praying to saints has Scriptural foundations as well as a long practical history.
Like Abraham and Moses before him, St Paul exhorts his fellow believers to pray for him and the well being of others (Rom 15:30; Col 4:3; 1 Tim 2:1).
Historically, prayer to the saints for their intercession began within four generations of Christ, according to US Scripture scholar and apologist Scott Hahn, who points to the discovery of prayer inscriptions in first century catacombs.
If all this makes the saints sound too lofty and ethereal, perhaps we can track and explore the saints’ essential earthiness.
As US Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it: “Saints are not freaks or exceptions. They are the standard operating model for human beings… all believers are saints.” But is this how saints are perceived in 21st century post-enlightenment society?
Saints are more likely to be construed as inhuman, impossibly perfect beings often contrasted with our own frailty and weakness: “I’m not a saint, I’m only human”.
Far from being inhuman caricatures, the saints show us what it means to be fully human and fully alive – to abandon oneself to the love of God.
In a recent homily given during his trip to Lourdes, Pope Benedict pointed out that, with regard to frailty and a tendency to err, the saints are no different to ourselves.
“They were sinners and they knew it, but they willingly ceased to gaze upon their own wounds and to gaze only upon the wounds of their Lord, so as to discover there the glory of the cross, to discover there the victory of life over death,” the pontiff said.
This is the very opposite of the Hollywood storyline we mentioned earlier when clarity and certainty are sought through a human medium – when we would rather abrogate our human freedom in being told who we are and what to do. The saints’ lives, works and writings have the ability to speak beyond their own time “so as to speak cogently to the questions and concerns of people of every era”, says Dominican theologian and priest Fr Peter John Cameron; the latter often being “masterpieces of psychological penetration”.
Perhaps our experience and understanding of the saints is marked by the distinct un-reality in which they are often related, in contrast to the English speaking, jeans-wearing ghosts appearing in primetime slots.
Whether it be gaudy, unnatural pictures on holy cards or some of the extreme and archaic political and personal circumstances of their lives, the saints would seem in need of a press officer.
In the late Pope John Paul II they found one. Under his reign the Congregation for the Causes of Saints beatified 996 men and women and canonised another 447 – a number comparable to the total of those beatified and canonised in the four previous centuries combined. John Paul II beatified and canonised more lay people than any other pope (215 and 245 respectively) as well as numerous saints from outside of Europe.
George Weigel, the late Pope’s biographer, says that this was part of promoting Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness”, particularly to the laity, in showing the diverse number of ways saintly lives might be lived. We are saints too and therefore called to build up the Kingdom of God. “What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints?” The communion of saints is the Church” (CCC 946). Whether lay, priests or Religious, all of the faithful are called to minister in their own different ways but with equal dignity: “For in the Church there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission” with the laity having “their own assignment in the mission” (CCC 873).
St Therese of Lisieux showed us that our own pursuit of sainthood needn’t be epic or outlandish but instead must be lived out in our own reality.
As a cloistered Carmelite nun who died at the age of 25, she proved the impact that attentiveness to one’s own vocation could have in being made patron saint of missions – her holiness impacting upon many more lives than her own.
In this interconnectedness, the health and effectiveness of the Church is dependent not only upon the Holy Spirit but also upon the willingness or otherwise of Christians to be saints.
Respected US journalist and commentator John L Allen points to the need for saints in keeping the Church on task in our foundational mission of showing God’s love to the whole world:
“At the end of the day, bishops and saints need one another – bishops, to remind saints that no force in the Church ever exists for itself; and saints to remind bishops that ultimately the Church exists for the gospel, and not the other way around.”
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
1901 – 1925
A handsome man from a well-off family who dedicated his life to serving the poor in secret. When he died aged 24 from illness, townsfolk were surprised at seeing hundreds of poor families turn out to mourn him. Born in Turin, Frassati had many friends, a passionate interest in sport and a profound love of God that drove his love for others. When he graduated, his father gave him the choice between a car or money. He chose the money and used it for lodging for an elderly woman who had been evicted, cared for a man dying of consumption and food for three children who had lost their mother.
Blessed Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi
1880 – 1951
Blessed Maria Corsini
1884 – 1965
A married couple who knew how to love and respect each other and gave their all to their children. He was a lawyer and public servant. She was involved in the cultural life of Florence and an author and professor of education. Every evening they prayed the Rosary and dedicated their family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pregnant with their fourth child, they were told the baby would die and was a threat to Maria’s life. Refusing abortion, they prayed fervently and after a difficult pregnancy were blessed with a baby girl.
Blessed Laura Vicuna
1891 – 1904
Born in Santiago, Chile, her father died in the army. Destitute, her mother became a mistress of Manuel Mora, who paid for her schooling but withdraw his care and affection when Laura announced a desire to become a Salesian. She offered up her suffering and own life for the salvation of her mother’s soul given the relationship she had with Mora. In 1901 she was admitted to the Salesians but returned in late 1903 suffering from a severe illness. In a drunken rage, Manuel Mora beat her to unconsciousness. She died eight days later. Learning of her daughter’s sacrifice her mother left Mora and returned to the faith.
St Joseph Moscati
1880 – 1927
A highly prayerful, pious and intellegent man, Joseph Moscati graduated from medical school at the age of 23. Throughout his life he preferred healing the poor and homeless as well seeing to the health of priests and religious.
He helped many survive the eruption of Mt Vesuvias and a cholera epidemic as well as volunteering to be an army chaplain. His own faith was contagious with many returning to the faith because of his witness.
Having made a vow of chastity in 1913, he sought to join the Jesuits but they helped him discern that his true vocation lay in being a medical practioner.
Venerable Matthew Talbot
1856 – 1925
Born in Dublin, the second of 12 children to alcoholic dockworker, Matthew followed in the footsteps of his alcoholic father. He became a brickie’s assistant in his adult life. Struggling with alcoholism, Talbot often sold his possessions to drink more. One day he hit rock bottom when his drinking friends avoided him outside their usual pub. He returned home immediately and told his long-suffering mother he’d take a sobriety pledge and went to Confession and Mass the next day. From age 28, he grew in spiritual knowledge and prayer as well as secretly helping others.
Blessed Isidore Bakanja
1887 – 1909
A slave labourer for white colonists in Belgian Congo, modern-day Zaire. Converted at 18 by Trappist missionaries, shared his faith, prayer life with fellow workers. Seeing prayer as a threat to work, the colonists demanded he remove his scapular. Was twice flogged when he refused and was thrashed 100 times with an elephant whip when he refused again. Was chained up for 24 hours, was told to leave the plantation. Hid in a forest but the inspector saw him, and described seeing festering open wounds with flies. “Tell them I am dying because I am a Christian,” Bakanja said.
Blessed Bartholomew Longo
1841 – 1926
Born into a wealthy family with a faithful religious upbringing and education, Longo fell away from belief while studying law at the University of Naples. Following a philosophy class from a former priest, he went from being indifferent toward the Church and Christianity to antagonistic. Participating in anti-Church protests and eventually becoming a practicing satanist he was eventually guided back to the Faith through a local professor and a Dominican friar. He devoted the rest of his life to God in preaching against the occult and establishing trade schools for the sons of imprisoned men.
Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla
1861 – 1936
Born a Spanish gypsy, ‘El Pele’ as he was known became a Christian in 1912 along with his common law wife Teresa. Respected for his piety and his charity, Ceferino was a well known horsedealer and leader. Fellow gypsies trusted him to help settle disputes. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he was arrested for defending a priest who was being dragged through the streets and for having Rosary beads in his pocket. He was jailed and offered freedom if he agreed to stop praying the Rosary. He refused and was martryed by shooting. He died with Rosary in hand shouting: “Long live Christ the King!”
Blessed Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodriguez Santiago
1918 – 1963
Suffered adversity when his family store and business burnt to the ground in Puerto Rico. At age 9 he saved his 1-year-old cousin from a rabid dog, suffering physical damage that would trouble him for his whole life. Became an office clerk and an English translator; spent his spare time hiking and playing the piano. Volunteered at Catholic University Centre in Puerto Rico, evangelising students and teachers as well as teaching catechism to highschool students. He also published liturgy guides and magazines and encouraged liturgical renewal amongst clergy and the laity.
St Genoveva Torres Morales
1870 – 1956
Born in Castille, Spain, both her parents and four of her siblings had died by the time she was 8, when she was taken into the care of one of her brothers. At age 10 she started to read spiritual books and had a love of God’s will. At 13 she had her left leg amputated due to gangrene, which was done at her house with insufficient anesthetic. Spending 9 years in a Carmelite Mercy Home from 1885, she developed a strong inner life, eventually desiring to become a nun. Was refused entry into the Carmelites due to her physical condition. Started her own religious community devoted to poor women.
Blessed Franz Jagerstatter
1907 – 1943
An Austrian husband and father of three, he was guillotined by the Nazis in Berlin. A parish sacristan, he cast the only vote against the Nazis in local elections. Was subjected to pressure from concerned locals but his wife stood by him. Refused conscription and offered himself for medical service. Was arrested and detained and while he had a crisis of faith, he stood his ground. Was executed for refusing to serve in the Third Reich armies. “I can say from my own experience how painful life often is when one lives as a halfway Christian” Jagerstatter said. “It is more like vegetating than living.”